Is Modi’s Fit India Initiative Enough to Help the Nation Achieve its #FitnessGoals?

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Is Modi’s Fit India Initiative Enough to Help the Nation Achieve its #FitnessGoals?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

August 29 marks India’s National Sports Day, which commemorates the birth anniversary of hockey legend and Olympian, Major Dhyan Chand. While the special day is not usually celebrated with the same fervour as its more exciting counterparts like National Science Day, PM Modi is determined to change that by unveiling a new initiative. The famously fit 68-year-old — who is a passionate yoga practitioner and was seen earlier this month wandering the jungle with adventurer Bear Grylls on an episode of  Man vs. Wild — announced the Fit India Movement, a campaign intended to improve the nation’s abysmal fitness levels, on Thursday.  

India has come a long way when it comes to sporting achievements. Our cricket team is one of the best in the world, and win so consistently that watching them play verges on being boring. Newly minted badminton world champion PV Sindhu became the first Indian to achieve the feat, while Manasi Joshi won gold at the Para-Badminton World Championships. Young Sumit Nagal managed to take a set against the legendary Roger Federer at the US Open on Tuesday, winning him praise from the GOAT even if he lost the match. It’s been a week of big results.

Despite these milestones in athletics, however, the same can’t be said for the average Indian. We used to grow up playing gully cricket and chor-police outdoors, but, as the PM pointed out in his Fit India speech, technology has made it so that kids sit indoors watching TV. Or, as is the case in Maharashtra, they get hypertension and diabetes from eating unhealthy school canteen food. “How can they waste time playing basketball when there are board exams?” cry parents. Surely it’s better to get into an IIT, so you have a few prosperous years before heart disease takes you at the age of 45? 

Perhaps these dismissive attitudes toward fitness are not surprising, given the increasing rate of obesity and diabetes even in adults. No wonder PM Modi wants to whip us into shape. But is it going to work? As he declared in his speech, Fit India is not a campaign but a movement, similar to Swachh Bharat. The aim is to make the public aware of the importance of health and fitness, to get everyone up and moving for a solid half-hour each day. True to form, Modi peppered his speech with inspirational mantras pointing out the relationship between fitness of the body and the mind. “Take any field today, look at your icons, see their success stories, whether they are in sports, films, business, most of them are fit,” he said — a bold statement to make, considering Amit Shah is Home Minister. “There is no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs.” 

True to form, Modi peppered his speech with inspirational mantras pointing out the relationship between fitness of the body and the mind.

Obviously, our PM speaks from experience. For the vast majority of 68-year-old uncles, however, this last bit of advice is likely to lead to a cardiac arrest. The truth is, we Indians are, by and large, a soft, unathletic people, as spongy and pillowy as the boondi ladoos we relish. Most urbanite aunty-uncles get their daily exercise in the form of a leisurely evening walk where they spend more time socialising on the garden bench than anything else. A large chunk of our country legitimately considers jalebi an appropriate breakfast food, and existential threats to our beloved Parle-G biscuits or Maggi noodles are enough to cause a public uproar. Rarely do our paan-stained pavements and unlandscaped parks offer inspiration to experience the great outdoors, and while jogging might lower your blood pressure, it’s also likely to cause black lung disease in most cities. 

So, for a country whose national sport may as well be put down as  “walking to the chaiwala,” perhaps Fit India should begin by setting more realistic goals. We could pledge to only eat five modaks this Ganesh Chaturthi, not our usual quota of 15. Or get our hearts pumping by catching a train during rush hour instead of the usual rickshaw. Maybe the now-infamous video of local braveheart Vipin Sahu screaming his head off while paragliding in UP will encourage more people to take up extreme sports, in hopes of becoming internet celebrities themselves. And since the PM encouraged a return to classical dance forms, could we also bring back the tradition of pelvic-thrusting along to item songs in cinema aisles, common courtesy be damned?

Look, unlike PM Modi, I’m no fitness expert. I’m just an ordinary, less-than-fit Indian, who thinks that before we try and run, we need to learn how to walk. The Fit India Movement is just what we need to start taking our first baby steps.

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